Friday, June 6, 2014

Charlotte's lost old buildings may be costlier than we thought

Where a historic-district house once stood, in Dilworth
It's sadly coincidental that this week, I went out to snap a photo of the lot where a vintage 1920s house in Dilworth has been demolished, just a few days after I read this article in the New York Times. The Times piece, "Urban Renewal, No Bulldozer: San Francisco repurposes old for the future," describes how it's San Francisco's older buildings downtown that are luring the tech firms that so many cities – including Charlotte  hope to attract.

Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood is a turn-of-the-last-century streetcar suburb built a mile from the city's uptown in an era when that was the edge of town. The section where the house was demolished is a local historic district. (This PlanCharlotte article describes growing discontent among some Dilworthians with the way that district has been managed over the past decade.)

In North Carolina, buildings in local historic districts can be demolished, as can local historic landmarks. The law says that if a city or county has a local historic district or landmarks ordinance, an appointed commission can delay
demolition by up to a year. That's what the Historic District Commission did for the Dilworth house. But it's a hot neighborhood, with numerous tear-downs of older, smaller homes being replaced by much larger, grander homes.

An aside: Don't complain that the neighbors who don't like the demolitions are just density-fighting NIMBYs. No increased density is being created here, just more impervious surface.

The sad irony is that because Charlotte's civic personality has never valued older buildings, the city's uptown has hardly any of those old buildings that in San Francisco are being upfitted. They've all been demolished because local development policies,shaped in large part by builders of tall office towers, never pushed for policies that would have better protected some of the older, smaller buildings: height limits, for instance, in parts of uptown, and restrictions on surface parking lots.

If you want to look for tech firms and start-ups that like the funky older buildings, you can visit uptown's Packard Place, but in general you'll have to widen your search far beyond uptown. Look to the old, industrial fringes of South End. Look along North Tryon Street and into Optimist Park, Belmont and Villa Heights, just north of the I-277 freeway loop, as well as up North Davidson Street. Look at the Plaza-Central business district, and beyond. Cast an eye on the city's smaller, overlooked spots. That's where those valued old building remain.

But with so little protection from city policy, will those spots remain? And it's sadly ironic that Dilworth  the first of the city's once-fading close-in neighborhoods to rebuild itself with 1970s urban pioneers  is now being devoured with demolitions.